History just keeps confounding us—both as we look back upon it with modern sensibilities (“How could they have???”) and how it unfolds in front of us in real time. (“Could this really be happening?”)
But there’s also an in-between take on history that is the recent past. Viewed more from the vantage point of years rather than decades or centuries, it follows upon daily journalism’s “first draft of history” with enough data and perspective to weave together a more complete picture of issues that have vexed or misled us in the whirlwind of everyday life.
Early this past week, “New York Times” columnist David French, a conservative evangelical Christian, anti-abortion advocate and former attorney who specialized in cases defending religious liberty, did something unusual in the largely partisan world of opinion-mongering. He examined actual data about abortion trends since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion 50 years and 10 presidents ago.
After which he asked:
Who is the most pro-life president in modern American history? Many of Donald Trump’s defenders say that it’s him. The proof, they say, is the Supreme Court’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which was issued one year ago this week. Trump nominated three of the six justices who voted to uphold Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, and three of the five who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade. He was indispensable to the pro-life movement’s greatest legal triumph, and in the months since Dobbs, state after state has enacted or enforced sharp limitations or near-total bans on abortion. So it has to be Trump, right?
If you glean that the tone of French’s leading final question alerts us that it’s probably not Trump, you are correct. But the answer to the question of which other president it is may very well surprise you, as it did me.
French then goes on to present his metric for “determining a president’s pro-life credentials.” And he does so with the clearest bit of data he can muster.
Not by analyzing how hard presidents pushed for changes to abortion law, or requiring Supreme Court nominees to pass a litmus test on abortion.
Instead, he decided to examine “the prevalence of abortions performed in the United States” during each president’s term(s) in office.
And then, much to his astonishment and mine—and maybe yours, too—“the title of the most pro-life president in modern American history belongs, remarkably, to Barack Obama. It’s not close.”
To wit: research by the nonprofit NGO Guttmacher Institute examined both the abortion rate (the number of abortions per 1,000 women) and the abortion ratio (abortions per 100 pregnancies). Predictably, both spiked higher after abortion was legalized during Richard Nixon’s second term in 1973.
The upward trend continued on through the Ford and Carter administrations before a slight decrease during the Reagan presidency and a continuing steady decline under George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama.
French points to the Obama era figures in the astonishment that he does because they are a distinct outlier:
“In 2016, at the end of a presidency dominated by pro-choice policies and judicial nominations, there were a total of 874,080 abortions—338,270 fewer than there were in 2008, the last year of the George W. Bush presidency. That’s a remarkable decline of 28 percent. The rate and ratio of abortions at the end of Obama’s second term was actually lower than it was in 1973, the year Roe was decided.”
And then came the Trump presidency, with its explicit promise (which was fulfilled) to appoint only carefully vetted Supreme Court justices who were certain to overturn Roe v. Wade and effectively end abortion access across a sizable portion of the United States. Which those justices have now done.
But before they did, we see that the abortion ratio followed its historical trend by dipping slightly in the first year of the Trump presidency in 2017, only to be followed by steady increases that saw it jump from 18.4% in Trump’s first year to 20.6% in 2020—an overall increase of 12%.
As a result, there were 56,080 more abortions in Trump’s final year in office than there were in Obama’s. And as French points out, those increases began in 2018, so were not attributable to the pandemic.
That’s a lot of figures, but it’s hard not to notice that most all of them go against the grain of logical expectations.
Deductive reasoning tells us that abortions should increase under an aggressively pro-choice president who manages to keep abortion legal, and then decrease under a president who promises to end abortion.
But sometimes reason runs headlong into intangibles that run reason into the ground. And for French, that intangible was hope—something Obama discussed relentlessly and held out as the key to individual and community well-being.
Trump, with his slashing, angry and grievance-filled ravings against anyone who stood in the way of his lust for personal power, darkened the mood and character of the entire country, and when hope and its future orientation decline, marriage and birth rates go with it, while abortion, depression and suicide all go up.
That is the tale of the Trump years, but as for Obama, what French didn’t get to within the constraints of a newspaper column was the fact that Obama’s hope rhetoric was supported by actual programs aimed at improving the lot of struggling families and the working poor. That cohort has been disproportionately shut out from the spoils of the modern globalized economy, their real wages continuing to decline while the wealthy have benefitted all the more.
Herein lies the grievous contradiction of politicians who enthusiastically back abortion bans while consistently voting against other truly “pro-life” measures once life emerges from the womb.
And sad to say, the vast preponderance of those politicians belong to one political party.
Whether it’s universal child care or pre-school, the minimum wage, health care or food assistance programs, Republicans have historically opposed it, on the grounds that such assistance destroys individual initiative and creates an unhealthy state of dependency.
Ronald Reagan made hay out of such stereotypes with his imagery of Cadillac-driving welfare moms, and the rhetoric has only grown more virulent over the decades.
When the Biden administration introduced a variety of measures to alleviate the stresses of working families in 2021, the proposal for universal day care in an early bill elicited this tweet from Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn:“You know who else liked universal day care?” Her link took readers to a 1974 article about day care in the Soviet Union.
Ohio Senator J.D. Vance was not to be outdone, tweeting, “‘Universal day care’ is class war against normal people. Normal Americans care more about their families than their jobs, and want a family policy that doesn’t shunt their kids into crap daycare so they can enjoy more ‘freedom’ in the paid labor force.”
The idea that parents (read: “women”) can simply give up their jobs to provide their own child care simply doesn’t square with just how precarious the economic situation is for the working poor. And the idea that child care assistance amounts to “class warfare” is just insane on its merits, a shameful distortion that conjures images of an embattled bourgeoisie manning the barricades against ravenous masses of the poor, the desperate, the dispossessed.
In the end, a true “culture of life” would see every stage of life as precious and worthy of both rhetorical and economic support. Such a culture would ensure that in a land of unparalleled wealth, no person, whether by generational poverty, paltry wages, disability or other circumstance, is ever hungry, ill, unhoused, or barely able to afford the basic necessities of a dignified life.
Such a culture would reflect the ethos of both Bush presidents, whose calls for a “kinder, gentler nation” and “compassionate conservatism” seem to emanate from a completely different solar system than where their storied party’s mainstream flows today.
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Justice for All by American Life League https://www.flickr.com/photos/americanlifeleague/
Children’s daypack parade by Note Thanun, Thailand https://unsplash.com/@notethanun
Faith, hope, love by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/
Obama “Hope” poster from the public domain